“Let us the land which Heav’n appoints, explore; Appease the winds, and seek the Gnossian shore.”
—The Aeneid, Virgil
“If I had wings, I would fly away
But I only have legs so I gotta stay.”
My mother plays piano. As it is with much of her interests, she keeps close to her chest. Most of her pastimes demand a quiet and personal space. Alone time. My memories of her playing are set on soft summer afternoons, when my family was out of home, and I would be so long in bed that she might assume I was too. She plays to a silent house, backdropped by chirping rosellas and children playing in the street. She played for choir recitals, to the side, facing away from the audience. She plays for the singers. She plays for herself.
Now the piano sits in what was once my brother’s room, among the separate television for my dad’s cricket test matches. This room is now a somewhat liminal space, an extra room, an empty place — one that my family is lucky enough to have.
One thing she plays is Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies, it took me a long time to recognise it. I knew it well, but never placed it. It’s the nature of the piece; a kind of cosmic concealment buried within it. The triptych’s melodies are simple but sentimental. Music that gets subtly folded into the recesses of your white matter on lonely summer afternoons.
My immediate preface; I know almost nothing about classical music. Even this week researching Satie himself, I’ve realised I know little more than Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies. “Gymnopedies 1” is the first song that most of us are familiar with, its TV-commercial appeal kept it in the mind of the American psyche, and kept it on Spotify today.
Next comes Gnossiennes — possibly because they both start with a ‘G’. During a heavily psychotic and dissociative year of my life I played Gnossiennes on a loop as I stumbled through the streets of Berlin. Its eerie, modular repetition quickly becomes a terrible addiction. A nervous feeling grows. As though the keys of time could be easily dislodged, that the Gnossian shore could rise and swallow you whole. That’s as far as I ever really went with Satie, I never cracked Furniture music.
I’m bringing a friend to your next party. Always wears a bowler hat, sleeps in trash and insists on eating only white food. You know that kind of dude. He has his own religion.
It’s hard to not imagine these kinds of affectations being a conscious construction. With indie-sleaze back in fash it probably won’t be long till I really do bring this dude to your house. Yet, in a serious world, at a serious time, Erik Satie danced a line. He was a painful eccentric whose life’s goal was to blur the boundaries of his own personal ironies and truths.
That sounds fucking annoying doesn’t it? It sounds annoying, because, to us, this can hardly not feel disingenuous. Eccentricities, generally speaking, can get pretty irritating pretty fast. But, for Satie, when looking at his music, it was all a part of his nebulous envisioning of the world. Beyond his quirks, all his oddness rationalises itself in the unfathomable subtleties of his art.
The world of music was not playful when Satie cut his teeth. Helmed by powerhouse virtuosos like Wagner and Tchaikovsky, the Romantic period of the 19th Century leaned toward the dramatic and had an air of pomposity. Erik Satie was not a product of his time, but a paving stone on the road toward a more experimental period later to come.
My Satie is the early Satie. The simple cabaret, modular compositions that at the time might have sounded more like the music of the boozy French streets on a Saturday evening. These pieces are usually paired with his elusive titles, such as Gnoissennes. While eluding to Gnosticism, this word is an invented French world, like many of his pieces.
Later, Satie would lean more into the esoteric. In the 19th century, a thread of artists became fascinated with the occult and the mystical. Satie became increasingly mystical himself. He became interested in the symbolist movement, the theatre of the absurd, and later helped found Dada. He was exposed to the Rosicrucians, an esoteric order that blends mysticism drawn from a number of Mesopotamian religions and philosophical thoughts. He was for a short time their official composer. Satie’s link comes through an author called Péladan. After breaking from the order, he later established his own “Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus Leader of the People”, with himself as the only member and office-holder. He believed strongly in the principle of self-denial in service of art.
How much of this esotericism Satie really absorbed is hard to say, but it seems to have had some effect on the nature of his music, be it ironic or not. When you read about his life and philosophy, it’s hard to distinguish how serious he was about much of what he believed. He published his own writing, including a satirical daily schedule. It begins with an expression, “An artist must regulate his life”.
Like the lack of time signatures in his work, for Satie there are no absolutes. In his published routine, which we should take with a big grain of salt, he documents in detail his daily activities down to the moment.
I eat only white foods: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (the white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (skinned).
I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with fuchsia juice. I have a good appetite but never talk when eating for fear of strangling.
I breathe carefully (a little at a time) and dance very rarely. When walking I hold my sides and look steadily behind me.
This was primarily a joke, but reports of his real life are equally obtuse. He was once found during a bombing lying face-down because he claimed to be composing a piece of music for an obelisk. He once demanded the director of the Paris Opera to consider one of his scores for performance without an appointment, fully expecting to be rejected. When he was turned away, he wrote a series of hostile letters, eventually challenging him to a duel. When he finally met with the director, Satie lectured him about artistic integrity.
His accolades depict him as a figure who could be hilarious but also deeply tragic. He was known to put even the most mundane or absurd texts to music and would “gravely consult” his peers for advice on these unusual compositions. Later he would live a life of self-imposed solitude. Residing alone in a small one-room apartment in the Paris suburbs for his last twenty-seven years. He owned a piano, but he no longer played it. When he was found dead from a life of drinking, he was reported to be living in complete squalor.
He was a strange man, who lived strangely, in a time that did not ask for the strange.
Berlin can feel like a serious place. At least for the most part. Of course, every summer the Openairs are full of garrulous easygoers. A Sisyphus mainstay will embrace you on the dancefloor and whisper little nothings in your ear. The streets of Neukölln on a Friday evening are teeming with post-ironic art shows that smirk in smoky back rooms. Yet, underneath all this, somewhere between the second summer of love and the Trump era, Berlin techno shed itself of all cheese.
In the post-Mauerfall club scene, the divide began not long after the city came together. Already a rift between the DJ’s emerged, an artistic divide between the good time musicmakers and the militant headsplitters. For the last ten years, the DNA of the Berlin techno DJ allows for no silliness. Many Berlin DJ’s go by their real names, are unlikely to interview and certainly rarely interact with the crowd under a sweaty concrete roof.
It’s not about the personalities, it’s about the music, and techno is a serious affair. You only have to look at the last ten meters of the Berghain queue to see that.
In our hyper-meta, social media landscape identity is a strange beast. An artist will inevitably have to deal with social media. To strike a balance between themselves and how they appear online. It’s a lose-lose situation. Playing to social media feels tacky, don’t play at all and you’ll disappear. In our memeifed world, quirks and personality affectations are ill-advised, unless you want to end up being labelled as cringe. Yet, at the same time, there are some that do it well, and they do it the way Satie did — with militant conviction.
Electronic music is no stranger to characters. Of course, in terms of household names we have robotic duos and mouse headed men. Yet the techno scene, even in the Haupstadt, has some colourful creatures of its own to boast.
The first of which, like most things I know, came to me from my friend Zeb. If you scroll deep into the Boiler Room sets of 2014, you might come across Anklepants, you might have even spent the last seven years trying to forget him. Unlike most B-R sets, the audience is not doing their best to sidle up behind Anklepants, they are actively standing back. It might have something to do with his irritating robotic screech, or maybe it’s the animatronic dick in the middle of his face. Anklepants could arguably only spring up in Berlin. The brainchild of an Australian musician and animatronics whizz, the clown-convict jester has a cult following, and is not the only Australian character to do so.
While far less interested in conjuring a confrontational image, Partyboi69 is another Berlin-adjacent character. Known by club-types all around for his ketamine sleaze, white singlet and service-station shades, Partyboi now cultivates international success. If we believe what I’ve heard, he’s a musician who has previously played with a notable Melbourne-based neo soul outfit. An interesting element of Partyboi’s unprotected aesthetic is that it was primarily social media first. Long before Partyboi was touring, DJing or making music, he was just a character. Partyboi69, the character, is perfect for the socials. His catchphrases, fashion and accompanying music toes the right line between two important types of fan. The boys who think they’re in on the joke, and the hipsters who think they’re in on the joke. Both, of course, have a different idea of what the joke actually is. What Partboi69 himself thinks, remains uncharacteristically “protected”.
Of all the Berlin personality DJ’s that have found success, and possibly even quit their dayjobs, a single character charges forward — and you might have heard their music without even knowing it. HorsegiirL, is a horse. As far as one can tell. Her Instagram is carefully cultivated, and her follower count has risen in (what I can only imagine) is a sudden and unexpected supernova. If you’re on Tiktok, and especially if you live in Berlin, you may have heard My Barn My Rules.
MCR-T’s acid line and HorsegiirLs pitched up lyrics are catchy, quick, and cleanly fit the manic pace of a Tiktok addicts bingefest. You can hear it behind everything from brunch recommendations to 20 year old picking shoes. HorsegiirLs own sets are hyperquick. Her Y2K infused rhythms flip effortlessly between hyperpop and hardstyle. All the while, her uncanny horse mask remains fixed tight.
As with all these artists, the dour face of the Berlin scene, seems to be morphing. Maybe we are, like after Satie’s leaving something serious, and moving toward something else — something weird.
Would people remember Satie if not for his quirks? Without social media would we have our new wave of Berlin characters? From looking at artists and their eccentricities, what occurs to me is what makes us remember some and not others. Not just anyone can stick on a funny hat and keep your attention. To perform as an eccentric, it strikes me it must come from a genuine will. Being creative can make you feel like an alien, and an alien has a gift, they can look at the world in a way that most can’t. They can look outside of themselves and find a new face; animatronic dick or not.
There’s a universal connection that we have to something unique. It’s the reason that Satie’s music can resonate effectively when present in tightrope documentaries, 60s advertisements, and to boys who lie in bed too long. Erik Satie was, of course, a genuinely strange person. But what I find most fascinating is how that strangeness comes through in his art. The weirdness is no affect, its strings go far deeper, weaved into fine tendrils.
An artist must regulate his life, that’s the preface to Satie’s famous ironic daily schedule, yet it seems it might say very little about his daily routine and much more about what he sees in the mirror. A reflection that blurs lines, extends past the signature of time and stretches their own life past to seek the Gnossian shore.
Thomas Huntington is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has written for Grattan Street Press, Apocalypse Confidential, Berlinable, and Post-Human Magazine. He is the founder and indentured servant of Soyos Books. Follow him on Twitter @coward_space.